Review X-Men Dark Phoenix – not the movie we needed
Early in January I made my list of top Science Fiction movies for 2019. I also placed X-Men Dark Phoenix on that list, with a few caveats. The constant delays and less than stellar career of its director made my me afraid it would flop. By the look of it X-Men Dark Phoenix will flop. So what happened?
Back in 2014 Bryan Singer managed to instill a new life into the X-Men franchise with X-Men Days of Future Past. It had a bi-generational cast, that 70s vibe and time-travel. After that we had two Deadpool movies, Logan and a middling X-Men Apocalypse. It was that last movie that proved the franchise could also easily falter. Sadly, X-Men Dark Phoenix is the worst of the bunch. Where Deadpool proved the franchise could rival the Marvel Cinematic Universe this movie is proof that will never happen again. So where to begin? I will explain the plot of X-Men Dark Phoenix in general details here, so SPOILER ALERT, and then I explain where it went wrong.
The story of X-Men Dark Phoenix
X-Men Dark Phoenix starts of well enough. It is 1992 and the X-Men save the crew of the Space Shuttle. Jean however, is struck by an unknown alien force, which we will call the Phoenix. She appears unharmed, but quickly it manifests itself as the Dark Phoenix. Jean starts remembering the traumatic events of her youth when she lost control over her powers and leaves the X-Men. For those having flashback to X-Men 2 I know what you are thinking.
So far so good – mostly – it is not the first time one of the X-Men ran away. But the movie goes out of its way to create obstacles and drama when there should not be any. For example, Jean confronts her father, who is still alive after the horrific car accident that killed Jean’s mother. It becomes obvious Jean’s father sent her to live with Charles at his school while Charles ensured she had no memory of her father. After the confrontation the X-Men find her and try to take her back home. But it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they succeeded right?
Instead the police arrive, I don’t remember why, but who needs a reason. Ooh and apparently the police siren activates the Dark Phoenix’s powers and Jean goes full psycho. Before long Jean is marked as the nation’s most wanted, after tossing a bunch of squad cars. Such a clear set up feels like a fake-out. To top it off the President of the United States suddenly refuses to take Charles’s call and there is talk of mutant internment camps. All that in the space of just a few minutes of screen time.
I am not certain what the writer was thinking, but the hurried plot development undermines its believability. To add more confusion Charles and Hank have been bitterly arguing. You see, Raven accused Charles of using the X-Men for his own ends. She accuses him of enjoying the spotlight too much. Charles counters by saying that a positive deed by a X-Men helps all mutants and thus some risk is worth it. The viewer is meant to have doubt between either viewpoint, but I firmly agree with Charles. The argument would have been pointless had Raven not died in a confrontation with Jean.
Enter Magneto – again!
And now enter Erik Lehnsherr, A.K.A Magneto. After he discovers Raven is dead by Jean’s hand he goes after her for revenge. As powerful as he is he apparently did not get the memo from X-Men Apocalypse that Jean is more powerful. The same arguments ensue between Erik and Charles that we have seen since the first movie from 2000, it is clear that the franchise is starting to repeat itself. Director and writer Simon Kinberg has thus failed to find a new direction, though Bryan Singer succeeded with Days of Future Past. Now don’t get me wrong, any scene with Charles and Erik is fantastic, but this time it does not manage to tip the scale in favor of greatness.
Jessica Chastain as the villain
And then there is the villains. This took me a while to understand. Apparently, they had been following the Phoenix in space with the desire to take it over and thus rebuild their civilization. As Phoenix now resides in Jean they seek her out. The villains are led by Vuk, played by Jessica Chastain. While Chastain does a good job she is also totally wasted on this role. Vuk does not really do much apart from following the trail of damage left by Jean / Dark Phoenix. For most of the movie Jessica is seen wearing a pencil skirt and high heels. Not exactly practical if you’re up against the X-Men. So I was mostly watching Jessica Chastain’s sexy calves.
And so X-Men Dark Phoenix wobbles along making mistakes. Near the end of the movie it still feels we have only scratched the surface of the plot, meaning it is not well established. Luckily the director decided to throw us another action scene, the last one this time.
The final action scene
Set on a train to the mutant internment camp Chastain’s character Vuk and her alien allies decide to take it over. Their objective is meant to be Jean and then in suck Phoenix out of her, but thanks for not telling us. The fight on the train is truly spectacular with the true star being Magneto (played by Michael Fassbender). Yet there are problems here as well, the number of baddies is seemingly endless with no explanation as to where they come from. The special effects are not top-notch and lets not speak of the dubious decisions made by the human guards. Their presence and dialogue is just to make us think they are assholes.
And then the movie ends with a confrontation between Vuk and Jean. The whole sucking Phoenix out of Jean is causing harm to Jean’s fellow X-Men so she decides to take the fight into space. There she seemingly wins, with Vuk being destroyed. However, in a twist it is revealed everybody thinks she actually died. This led to more confusion on my part.
Weird final shots
The movie ends with Xavier’s school being renamed Jean Grey’s School for Gifted Children – no idea why. Oooh and Charles is retiring, again no idea where this development came from. I suppose it has something to do with the arguments between Charles and Hank. The last shot shows Charles and Erik having a drink in a Paris sidewalk café. This shot is yet another in a series of random developments throughout the movie. I believe it may have been a callback to Days of Future Past, but it is not a very successful one. Erik and Charles yet again settle their differences – for like the 100th time. The shot ends with a Phoenix flying high in the sky above Paris suggesting Jean is still alive.
X-Men Dark Phoenix – Conclusion
If you did not get it yet, X-Men Dark Phoenix is a mess of a movie. I will not go as far as saying it is a bad movie, but sadly it makes no sense. Too many random developments make it hard to watch. Too many obstacles are thrown at the characters for character development’s sake. And finally, too many stupid decisions made by the characters made me dislike them. The fans have deserved that ultimate Jean Grey / Dark Phoenix movie for 20 years now and sadly Simon Kinberg proved he is not up to the challenge. I will the actors for trying their best: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender did their best. Jessica Chastain tried hard as a villain, but the role was too limited to shine, as was Jennifer Lawrence’s part.
I am not certain where the franchise will go from here. There is another movie set next year called The New Mutants, this supposed to be the last one besides Deadpool.